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Annie Cheng

Oakland, CA

Piedmont High School

Creative Nonfiction

CAS for Database

You always liked to watch the trains as they passed, one after another, right on schedule. They always came when they were expected, and left as soon as they could. But most of all, you liked how trains ran in a cycle, going everywhere and nowhere all at once.

     “Trains travel to a hundred places in one day,” you once mused. “But somehow they always know when to come back.”

     Unlike people, who were puzzles you couldn’t piece together, you could understand trains. The train schedule seemed to correspond with the intervals of your own heartbeat, so intrinsic that the whooshing of the arriving train was your inhale and the whirring of the departing train was your exhale. The rhythm pulled you in like the tide—lilting, constant, and unconcerned.

     We used to watch them together. We would sit on the metal bench, six feet away from the tracks, the cold morning air whipping our noses and ears until we were numb. The dense San Francisco fog would envelop us in comfortable obscurity. We would watch the people as they rushed out of the train and flooded onto the platform, your eyes following them uneasily as they bustled about, their feet moving, but their eyes never directed toward where they were going.

     “Doesn’t it bother you that so many people go by and you never know where they’re headed?” you asked me once, your eyes full of concern. “Why are they in such a rush to get to nowhere?”

     You never had a destination yourself. You would stare at the map for ages, tracing your finger over the colorful lines going their various somewheres. The red line to Daly City. The blue line to Pleasanton. The yellow line to Antioch. You traced your finger even beyond the lines, off the map, and into the depths of the unknown and the unknowable.

     “That’s where I want to go,” you would say, pointing to the uncharted territory on the edge of the glass encasement.

     I would gently move your finger back to the middle of the map. “This is where we are,” I I would say. “And this is where we’re going. Back home.”

     That was the difference between us. I looked at the map to know where I was. You looked to know where you could go. For you, the map was a gauntlet, not an ultimatum. It showed you what was possible and dared you to stray beyond the lines to seek that vague, just-out-of-reach. impossible land. But for me, the map outlined the comforting bounds of reality. I was content within those bounds, until I realized you weren’t there with me anymore. I found meaning within those bounds, until I realized that you had moved on from them, and suddenly all meaning ceased to exist.

     I couldn’t ever accompany you on your pilgrimage to that unknown destination. While I was intimidated by everything that I could not control, you clung to the uncontrollable as if it was your only lifeline. We were like two trains on opposite tracks, passing each other but never intersecting.

     You started to take the trains on your own, leaving me behind at the station. Every morning, you would catch the 9 AM train, following whims and curiosities to unspecified destinations until late at night, when you returned without notice. And every evening, Mom, Dad, and I would sit at the dinner table, the air dense with incongruity as the empty dinner plate, the unfilled cup, and the clean napkin took your place at the table. You became the wayward brother, the one who was never on time, the one who did everything wrong. You were the train that never arrived when expected.

     I’ve mostly stopped talking to you. Your missed calls and voicemails pile. You told me once that I hate the things I don’t understand. And maybe that’s true. Maybe I’ve stopped talking to you because I can’t understand you anymore. I’m no longer a part of your journey or your destination. I put my phone on silent because I don’t want to recognize how far you’ve strayed.

     But when I do pick up your calls, I’ll say only two words: come home.

     After a moment of tense silence, you hang up. The three beeps tell me that we’re no longer connected, the line has been severed, we’ve both stopped listening. The phone will drop out of my hand, but I won’t hear it clattering to the floor. All I’ll hear is the whooshing of the incoming train and the whirring of the departing train, and I’ll wonder if your heartbeat is still in sync with the rhythm of that timetable.

     Now, I’m sitting on that metal bench on the platform by myself, watching the trains go by without you, wondering if you are inside—your eyes pondering, your gaze upturned, your smile vague and content. As the sliding doors open and close, I keep searching through the ocean of faceless people for one I recognize. Once, I think I may have caught the back of your head before the unknown engulfed you and carried you away to a hundred other somewheres, but never here.


It is not easy, when siblings run on parallel tracks—when you are close but never quite touching. And this piece captures the complexity beautifully.

Annie Cheng is a senior at Piedmont High School (class of 2020). She currently lives in Oakland, California with her parents and her two older brothers. In her free time, she loves journalism, ballet, crossword puzzles, and Harry Potter.


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